Evaluating An Heirloom

By Catherine Fredman AAA

The enduring success of television programs such as “Antiques Roadshow” has inspired thousands of Americans to take a new look at family heirlooms long treasured for their sentimental value – and calculate their worth in cold, hard cash.

Inheriting your grandmother’s complete first-edition set of “The Wizard of Oz” books, for example, or the saber an ancestor supposedly swung in the Spanish-American war, could provide an unexpected source of funds if you decide to sell them. Conversely, keeping them can come with its own set of costs, in terms of additional insurance coverage and security. Either way, it’s not an easy choice, which is why you should learn as much as you can before you make it.

Step 1: Appraise it.

Your first step should be to have the object professionally appraised to find out how much a buyer might pay and what you should insure it for.

Don’t rely on your local antiques dealer or a price comparison on eBay. You want someone who is an expert in your type of objet. The American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America and the International Society of Appraisers provide listings of local professionals through a ZIP-code search on their websites. Caveat emptor: Because almost anyone can claim that he or she is an appraiser, make sure the one you choose complies with Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP), a set of guidelines put out by the Appraisal Foundation.

Appraisal prices vary, so tailor the type of appraisal to the estimated value of the object. Most professionals charge between $200 to $400 an hour for a written appraisal: This comprises examining the item, researching its background and writing a detailed valuation. Online estimations cost less money but more of your time: You do your own research on the item, provide a detailed description and upload photos, and the appraiser sends back an estimated valuation. Auction houses, jewelry stores, oriental carpet sellers and antiquarian book dealers often offer free appraisals. If the object is easy to transport, this can be a good bet.

For DIYers, your public library may have access to reference catalogs that will explain the difference between an authentic Tiffany lamp and a good reproduction. Kovels Antiques provides an online price guide for more than 900,000 antiques and collectibles.

Step 2: Insure it.

Whether you decide to hang on to your heirloom or hawk it, if it’s in your house, you’d best insure it. Standard homeowner’s insurance policies set a limit for the amount of coverage – $1,500 for jewelry, for example – and most won’t cover irreplaceable items. That kind of targeted protection requires adding an endorsement to your existing policy or buying a floater – a separate policy with similar coverage. The cost usually ranges from $48 to $75 a year per $10,000 of jewelry coverage or $100,000 of fine arts coverage, says Dan Corbin, director of research at Professional Insurance Agents, a trade association.

If you want to display your treasures, rather than stashing them in a safe deposit vault, you may want to strengthen your home security system. The good news: The cost of the upgrade might be offset by a discount on your homeowner’s insurance.  

Step 3: Sell it.

If you don’t want to keep the item, you have a range of options for monetizing it. Top auction houses, such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s, are always on the lookout for valuable collections and have access to deep-pocketed buyers. When you inquire, send them photos and detailed descriptions of the objects. 

Local auctioneers or antiques shops are one of the easiest ways to offload an estate, but they may not have the expertise to price your heirlooms accurately. Furthermore, their audience is most likely locals looking for a good deal, rather than serious collectors, so you’re not likely to get the best price.

If you think you have something special, albeit not of the caliber to interest Christie’s or Sotheby’s, contact gallery owners who specialize in particular areas, such as Navajo rugs or Amish quilts. Regional auction houses, such as Cincinnati-based Cowan Auctions, are large enough to hold periodic sales in specific categories, such as historic firearms and early militaria. Some of their categories are astonishingly varied: American history, for example, includes everything from 19th-century photography and political campaign ephemera to flags, manuscripts, and even items associated with slavery and abolition. 

You can find auctioneers and auction houses in your area by doing a ZIP code search at the National Auctioneers Association and AuctionZip. Expect to pay a sales commission of 20% to 50% of the sales price. You may also have to pay a net capital gains tax for collectibles of up to 28%.

If you want to sell the item yourself, eBay works best for items that are easily shipped. eBay charges fees of about 10%. For items that are big or need to be examined, such as a musical instrument or a piece of furniture, opt for Craigslist.

The Bottom Line

Family treasures can be worth a great deal – or they may turn out to have only sentimental value. Doing your due diligence can help you decide whether to hold on to them or how best to dispose of them.

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